Wednesday, 8 April 2015

TV REVIEW: Outlander - The Reckoning

This review contains spoilers. You can read Becky's spoiler-free review of the first eight episodes here.

The first half of Outlander's season ended with Claire quite literally in the hands of Black Jack Randall and Jamie bursting in to her rescue. The second half picks up again with this moment, but takes us back to Jamie's perspective, crafting the episode with his narration. He is meeting with the Redcoat deserter who promised to give him the name of the man who actually committed the murder when he gets news of Claire's capture and dashes off to rescue her. The rest of the episode deals with the consequences of her actions and expanding on Jamie's character.

Twisting the format slightly to allow for the episode to take place from Jamie's perspective proves to be a bit of a masterstroke considering The Reckoning's subject matter. Jamie's narration revolves around the choices a man makes in his life and he meets varies problems throughout; Colum and Dougal's rift over the Jacobite gold, Laighoire throwing herself at him despite his marital status and the actions he must take over Claire's disobediance. Sam Heughan adapts Jamie easily to each situation from the noble diplomat that takes on Colum and Dougal to the flustered man faced with a woman in nought but her corset.

It's the situation with Claire that could have potentially been massively mishandled within the episode and it's a scene that I know a lot of book readers were sort of dreading. Because she has not only endangered Jamie, she has also endangered Dougal's men and the clan MacKenzie, who don't think she realises just quite how much trouble she has caused. It leads to the first monumental argument of the Fraser marriage as both Claire and Jamie go at each other tooth and nail in the woods; she is indignant at his assertions she did it on purpose whilst he is furious that she can't seem to realise how huge it was that he revealed himself to Black Jack Randall in order to save her.

Heughan and Caitriona Balfe play the escalation of the scene beautifully, with Heughan in particular excelling through Jamie's shifting emotions. What is also so refreshing about Claire in this episode is how unaware she is of the traditions she violates with her early twentieth century attitude. Too often in these kind of stories, people learn to adapt quickly by virtue of education, but Claire blunders her way through and it's the first episode where that has major consequences for her. Balfe gives Claire an insolent air as she faces the consequences of her actions and the thrashing scene is much better for building Claire up in this manner.

Whereas the argument between the two is played entirely seriously, the bedroom based and potentially contraversial thrashing is played as a farce. The music in particular gives the impression it's a reel around the bedroom as Jamie circulates the bed in which Claire prepares to mount her defence. It's a very fine line to tread but the episode manages it, giving it the serious edge that such a scene requires whilst also mining it for the wry comedy that has characterised much of the series so far. The cut aways to the men downstairs listening to the chaos of the bedroom provide some well-judged laughs too.

That this is from Jamie's perspective also softens the scene somewhat; he feels it is something he has to do because he has always been brought up to believe it. Claire challenges his assumptions and choices constantly, none more so than when she refuses to sleep with him after the event. The power shifts in the marriage is something that Jamie didn't expect amongst the choices that he talks about throughout his voiceover, but before the end of the episode, another negotiation takes place between the two of them that addresses the imbalance caused by Jamie's adherence to tradition. And in this second negotiation, Claire is very much on top in more ways than one.

The final moments of the episode set up another potential hurdle for the couple to deal with in the form of Laighoire's 'ill wishes' as well as the possibility that a tonne of Redcoats could come after Claire at any second. It's all very exciting.

- Becky

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TV REVIEW: Outlander - Episodes One to Eight

This review of Outlander's first eight episodes is spoiler free, but Becky will be reviewing the remainder of the season individually and with spoilers, in our usual Buffery manner.

Based on Diana Gabaldon's rip-roaring and bestselling historical series, Outlander follows Claire Randall, a nurse in the Second World War who embarks on a holiday in Scotland with her husband, Frank, six months after VE Day. Whilst there, she finds herself drawn to a mysterious stone circle at Craigh na Dun and is pulled back in time to 1745, when Scotland was building to another Jacobite rebellion and intelligent, forthright women were viewed with suspicion. She attempts to get back to the stones and to her own time, but is soon drawn into the machinations of the MacKenzie clan and into a marriage of safety with the dashing Jamie Fraser.

Outlander has a huge weight of pedigree behind it, created by none other than television impresario, Ronald D. Moore (having previously worked on both Star Trek and the excellent Battlestar Galactica reboot), who brings his assured hand to Gabaldon's work. It's a smooth adaptation, streamlining out the story into something a little more manageable for a television audience that could be both in love with the books or without any knowledge whatsoever. Additions such as focusing on Frank in 1945 trying to find his wife, which didn't feature in the first book as it was Claire's first person narrative, builds the world up more and keeps alive the sympathy for an important character.

The world of 18th century Scotland is beautifully realised as the series sweeps through the Highlands. Muddy, brutal yet elegantly romantic, Claire's foray into the past carries the inherent thrill of seeing a world unknown, though it's considerably more bodice-ripping (literally) than your usual period drama. The sex, nudity and violence running through the story isn't sanitised from its source material, but nor does it feel gratuitous. Whilst there is the tendency carried over from the books to put Claire in as many potential sexual assault situations as possible, it's never supposed to be titillating; the focus on Claire herself in these moments ensures the focus is on her fear, not the man's enjoyment.

As Claire, Caitriona Balfe captures the character near-perfectly, from her belligerence in the face of 18th century attitudes towards women to a wicked sense of humour that bubbles beneath the surface. Claire already feels like a fully rounded character, naive in the face of these traditions for which she is an outlander, but learning to adapt quickly. It also helps that she has an excellent chemistry with both Tobias Menzies, in the dual role of Frank Randall and his 18th century ancestor, the Black Jack Randall, and Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser.

Menzies has a particularly tough role in distinguishing the noble academic Frank from his sadistic ancestor. Black Jack Randall is the show's current outright villain and Menzies clearly relishes portraying someone who is convinced of his own inability to be redeemed. Frank is a gentler sort, but there are still the odd tics and reminders of their heritage, particularly when the desperation of both characters comes to the fore.

On the other side of Claire stands Jamie Fraser, the Highlander with a price on his head whom she helps when she first arrives in 1745. Heughan cuts a dashing figure in plaid and recreates Jamie's honourable ways as well as his wry humour that made readers all over fall in love with him on the page (myself included). Like the other main characters, Jamie arrives fully formed and the show works quickly to establish his back story, which will affect how the narrative develops.

It's a strong start for Outlander's first season, one which provides enough information for those unfamiliar with the story whilst hitting all the right narrative beats for those who are. There's a clear understanding of what makes the books work here and Moore has successfully translated that to the screen. Knowing what is to come for the remainder of the season adds a special level of tension to the developing relationships and I have every confidence that the show will continue to excel.

- Becky

Outlander is available to view now on Amazon Instant Video UK.

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Thursday, 19 March 2015

DVD REVIEW: Two Night Stand

Two Night Stand stars Analeigh Tipton and Miles Teller as Megan and Alec, two young people in New York meeting up for a one night stand. She's just out of a long-term relationship and, after encouragement from her roommate, joins a dating site and ends up inviting herself to Alec's apartment. However, the morning after, things don't go as planned. They end up fighting but are forced together for another night when a freak snowstorm hits the city and Megan can't get home.

As a central conceit for a romantic comedy goes, it's a novel one, making the most out of its main apartment location. Blanket forts are constructed, toilets are blocked and stolen noodles consumed. Throughout, the conversations between Megan and Alec run the gamut of possible topics for two people slowly getting to know each other in extremely odd circumstances. It helps that the two leads share a sparky chemistry that makes the already snappy dialogue sing and the film would be poorer with less capable actors.

Miles Teller's star is fast on the rise with thoughtful turns like Sutter in The Spectacular Now to the more comedic charm of That Awkward Moment. Here, he shows he is a solid romantic leading man and proves he is more than just the arrogant charmer, coping with the more dramatic material once the inevitable twist occurs. His ability to roll off a one liner is well-served by the screenplay's wit. The only trouble with his character is even if Alec is sketched a little too thinly to go up against Megan's more rounded character.

However, it is Analeigh Tipton who shines brightest, imbuing Megan with an inherent likeability and avoiding too many of the romcom heroine cliches. Her clumsiness and misfortune derives more from traditionally awkward situations rather than being tacked on to give her some semblance of character. Giving off a young Meg Ryan quality, Tipton is all at once neurotic, charming, confident and vulnerable and it's refreshing to see within the genre, too often reliant on 'quirky' to sell a character. 

Megan is not the only way in which Two Night Stand manages to bring a little subversive quality to the usual genre formula. The opening credits, too often treated as just a colourful introduction, provide a look at not only the funny perils of online dating when you're female (HEY SEXXXXY for example), but also at Megan's backstory. A lot of the detail witnessed in the credits returns later, cueing the audience in to what she may or may not be hiding from her one night stand.

Although it seems to have flown under the mainstream radar, Two Night Stand is a frank and funny spin on the genre that may stretch credulity slightly towards the end, but is sweet and charming enough for you not to notice.

Two Night Stand is released on Digital Download and DVD on Monday 23rd March.

- Becky

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Monday, 16 March 2015

TV REVIEW: Poldark - Episode Two

After last week's dramatic and family-based episode, the second instalment of Poldark finds Ross settling down to his role as both land and potential mine owner. The Warleggans have struck again, refusing to extend credit on one of the local mines, leading Ross' friends to lose their livelihoods and the mine owner to commit suicide. Ross decides to re-open the Wheal Leisure mine and begins to gather investors to his cause, including cousin Francis, hoping to rejuvenate the dying industry of his home. Meanwhile, Demelza is at the mercy of Jud and Prudy who keep attempting to convince her that she doesn't belong in the Poldark home and taking advantage of the new kitchenmaid. Verity's decision to attend the Assembly Ball proves to have massive repercussions for the family Poldark as gauntlets are thrown and shots are fired. Well, it is the eighteenth century. They had to find some way of entertaining themselves.

It's a bit of an uneven affair this week as the opening few scenes are laboured with the same problem that weighed the first episode down. There's still a little too much exposition going on in order to cement the current economic status of the mining industry in Poldark's Cornwall. Whilst the opening suicide provided a short, sharp shock to the system that hinted at the depth of the Warleggans' greed, it isn't until later in the episode that any of it begins to pay off. In fact, the later intertwining scenes of Ross meeting with his investors and George attempting to manipulate Francis does far more to establish these tensions than anything that had been seen previously. It's cut beautifully, written well and shot in such a manner that the closer the audience gets to the respective conversations, the more they feel the weight of these decisions.

The entire episode revolves around the ideas of decisions, choice and liberty and it's the ball at the heart of the story that gives rise to many of these themes. Any reader of eighteenth or nineteenth century based literature knows that you can't beat a good ball for getting the story going. Anna Karenina dances with Vronsky and sets tongues wagging, Madame Bovary does something very similar as does Irene Forsyte. Basically, if you're a woman even thinking about being a bit wayward, a ballroom is the place to do it. It also functions as a meat market for those women out to get a husband. For young, pretty things like Ruth Teague, practically throwing herself at Ross, it's a chance to avoid the fate of someone like Verity who, at 25, is already considered past it.

Poor Verity. Offered a chance to escape the dreariness of a life serving her family and being treated little better than a servant, it's not surprising she falls for the dashing Captain. She is by far the most sympathetic character in the series so far and one who stands as a stark reminder of the restrictions placed upon women by the ideas around freedom and choice. The relentless pursuit of Ross by Ruth Teague and her innuendo-spouting mother provides the levity before it all goes a bit mad. The climactic duel isn't even fought over her, but because Francis felt slightly put out by the unsurprising fact that a navy captain could punch harder than him. Now, Verity is once more left stranded with her family as honour dictates it's probably not a good idea to elope with the man who shot your brother. Francis really is a turnip.

I also have to single out the performance of Eleanor Tomlinson this week as Demelza is fast turning into the one character who I have to watch whenever she's on screen. Tomlinson does well with the dramatic and emotional stuff attached to the role, particularly in the final, touching scene where she declares her home to be in the Poldark household, but it's her physical performance that is astonishing. Her awkward, loping walk contrasts perfectly to the elegant, refined gliding of Elizabeth or Ruth Teague, conveying their differences beyond their respective dialogue. Her uncomfortable attempt at a proper curtsey provides one of the sweeter moments of the episode and the subtle changes to her posture and walk once she's wearing a proper corset and dress maybe barely noticeable, but enough to show that Demelza is moving up in the world.

Despite its unevenness, there is something compelling about Poldark. The balance between comedy and tragedy is neatly struck and now that the stage appears to be set, it will hopefully enable the rest of the show to even itself out. And look, I got through the whole review without mentioning that swimming scene. Go me.

- Becky

Read Becky's review of Poldark's first episode here.

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Wednesday, 11 March 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Jinx Town (The Jinx Chronicles #1) - Sam Stone

On a routine school theatre trip in Manchester, teacher Jasmine Regis finds herself at the heart of an alien attack that spreads across Earth and soon finds humanity on the brink of collapse. The aliens, nicknamed by humans as the Jinx, have a simple but deadly motive; kidnap the women and kill any men that cross their path. Survivors quickly fall into a barbaric state of affairs and Jas, together with a pupil, Andrew, who she managed to save in the attack, find themselves attempting to survive in a world where normal rules no longer apply. Jas' secret to survival is a simple deception; she must pass as male to avoid detection from both the Jinx and the feral remains of human society.

The Jinx's modus operandi allows for some interesting explorations of gender and perception, particularly during an apocalypse that faces an extinction crisis. The women become valuable because they can breed, tapping into a long line of scientific and social anxieties that stretches back to the utopian fiction of the early 20th century. It is also, brilliantly, the women who take it upon themselves to do more, such as main character Jas' willingness to fight and learn more combat skills and Mallory, using her language skills as a translator. Gender is a fluid concept here, not defined by others' perceptions, but by the body's owner. It's a particularly astute exploration of bodily autonomy and one that makes Jinx Town something quite special.

The characters, although established swiftly, are well-wrought, with one misgynist character so perfectly realised that a shiver of disgust accompanies his every appearance. There's a sense of realism to these characters that make the morally upstanding ones sympathetically relatable whilst the human characters towards the villain end of the spectrum feel scarily real. Even the Jinx, who could so easily have become pantomime villains and caricatures carry a certain amount of sympathy. Their struggles have an inherently tragic quality that Sam Stone doesn't use to excuse their actions, but to explain them.

However, it is Stone's central character Jas that deserves the lion's share of the praise. Too often female characters in science fiction suffer from the full damsel-in-distress or are Trinity syndromed into a 'strong female character' that resembles no woman you've ever know. Jas is very definitely neither of those things, forced by her survival instincts into developing her strength through adversity. Crucially though, Stone ensures her humanity survives; she feels the weight of her decisions and actions, mourns for the world she's lost and is affectionate towards Andrew. She's not a badass automaton who just happens to be a woman. She's a woman who also happens to be a badass. It's both exciting and refreshing.

Stone's skilful blend of science fiction, horror and fantasy elements allows for her to build a coherent and horrifying world from which to launch her characters and the thematic work that acts as an undercurrent throughout the narrative. It rattles along at a swift pace, but it's to Stone's credit that it never feels rushed or too brief. Her own influences are clearly seen woven throughout Jinx Town in both explicit nods made by the characters, but also in certain visual descriptions or story developments. Sometimes, it feels that Stone should trust her genre audience a little more to pick up on these references without the detailed explanation that is sometimes offered. However, these influences are largely utilised effectively; Stone may be treading on familiar ground at times, but she mines it not only to say something about our contemporary society, but also age-old anxieties that humanity has not yet shed.

The horror of Jas' situation and the barbaric ways that humanity, or more accurately masculinity, lapses into provides not only a keen commentary on our own society's gender issues, but also taps into a very real sense of fear. A particularly grisly discovering in the Trafford Centre vividly lingers in the memory. Stone combines short, sharp shocks such as that one with a constant, lingering sense of dread maintained by an enemy that could appear any second and a society quickly losing its grip.

It's a doozy of an ending too and the longing for a sequel sets in as soon as you hit the final page. Stone is an exciting genre voice, infusing her fast-paced action with a thoughtfulness that can too often be forgotten.

Jinx Town (The Jinx Chronicles #1) is available from Telos Publishing:

- Becky

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FILM REVIEW: Inherent Vice

It’s hard to imagine anyone successfully ever adapting a Thomas Pynchon novel and, up to this point, no one even attempted such a thing. Probably with a good reason. The wild imagination of inventive American author would only feel restricted and tamed within the boundaries of film medium. Fortunately, in 2009 the author published his latest work, the curiously straightforward novel Inherent Vice. It is, of course, only simple by his own standards. From the perspective of genres, it might prove to be slightly too elusive but it also serves as a perfect vehicle for Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest opus.

The resulting film is, for the most part, a stunningly accurate adaptation of Pynchon’s prose. Which, of course, makes it both admirable and frustrating. It seems almost pointless to recount the labyrinthine plot in much detail for most of it almost serves almost entirely as an excuse to play around with characters, moods and conventions. Joaquin Phoenix yet again conjures his quirky alter ego and creates another bizarre character in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. He plays a hippie private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello who starts not one but several different investigations. One of which is related to the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) and the other is about finding a supposedly dead husband (Owen Wilson) of former heroin addict (Jena Malone).

Now, that short description is both accurate and terribly misleading. It would appear that Inherent Vice will follow a noir cinema pattern of investigation and resolve all its threads by the end. Not so. While the cases reach what one might call an end, there is no real resolution to this story. And, along the way, Anderson follows Pynchon’s lead and unleashes a series of seemingly random sets of characters and events to spice things up even further. That’s where we’re introduced to Doc’s relationship with police officer “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), the mystery of Golden Fang, secret cults hiding in a asylum, loan sharks and… “dentists on trampolines”.

It might be one of the most puzzling major films to be distributed by big studio ever since… The Master. An average audience member will have a hard time with this film, even if its premise is relatively straightforward from reading a synopsis. The only thing to hold on to is an endlessly entertaining set of performances from the excellent ensemble cast. In any case, it’s interesting to see Paul Thomas Anderson turn from his early, fairly straightforward, mannerisms and venture into the more incomprehensible auteur side that he displayed with his last pictures.

While all the previous films from Anderson were notable for their visual stylishness, there is an almost ascetic quality to his latest opus. Boogie Nights was filled with Scorsese-like tracking shots, as was Magnolia. There Will Be Blood created an impressive epic out of seemingly stark landscape. Even character-heavy The Master inserted some cinematic grandeur into its psychologically tormented narrative. Not so much with Inherent Vice. The director’s regular collaborator cinematographer Robert Elswit creates a much smaller film this time, almost entirely focused tightly on its characters, with many lengthy dialogue scenes being covered in one long take. For some, it might be the sign of Anderson’s losing a grip on technical side of things, an asset that created some of the most memorable images in his previous work. On the other hand, it’s that lack of “money shots” can also serve as a proof that this director is indeed growing up and getting tired of endless showmanship for its own sake.

The sign of maturation can be also gleaned from the choice of music. Much has been written about Jonny Greenwood’s aggressive accompaniment for There Will Be Blood and The Master. Both great scores but one could be wondering if that’s the only type of music we can expect from this collaboration. Inherent Vice is decidedly more nostalgic and brings a surprising touch warmer tones as well as nods to the noir genre. As such, it’s a sign of Greenwood’s versatility and it helps to ground this film’s mad narrative in something more emotionally relatable.

All in all, it’s both a departure and a throwback for director Paul Thomas Anderson. The film lets him reclaim his sense of humour and offers lightness absent from some of his recent works. One the other hand, it also follows his more auteur path (started on with The Master), in which he abandons what might be perceived as a genre convention or clear and coherent narrative. And because of that, Inherent Vice is due to alienate a lot of his audience even further. Which, in some way, might be the best things about it. Frustratingly fascinating.

- Karol

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Monday, 9 March 2015

TV REVIEW: Poldark - Episode One

When anyone mentions Poldark in a room full of people, there's usually someone who starts waxing lyrical about the virtues of the original adaptation of Winston Graham's series of novels. It was a popular and enduring production, one which casts a long shadow over the arrival of a new Poldark for the 21st century. With the original's stellar reputation, it seems a few people had written off Debbie Horsfield's new take on Graham's material before it had even begun. Such attitudes seem somewhat premature as the first episode gets everything off to a solid, if not entirely captivating start.

Ross Poldark arrives back on our screens, now in the form of Assorted Buffery favourite and Being Human star Aidan Turner, newly returned from fighting a losing battle in the American War of Independence. Presumed dead by his family, Ross returns to find his father dead, his inheritance in tatters and his unofficial intended, Elizabeth (Heida Reed), now betrothed to his wet cousin Francis. It's not long after he arrives home that everyone is telling him to leave again, bar his loyal tenants on his father's estate. However, a chance encounter with saucy wench (there really is no other term for this kind of thing), Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), and an ensuing familial brawl suggests to Ross that there is more for him in Cornwall than everyone would have him believe.

As one would expect from a series set in Cornwall, everything looks stunning, from the landscapes everyone wistfully gazes across to the costumes worn by the cast. Cornwall had also been showcased beautifully in last year's BBC adaptation of Jamaica Inn, but there it had been used to its full Gothic potential as storms closed in and the sea roared dangerously. The landscape of Poldark feels much more opportunistic. Although much is made of the exhaustion of the mines on which the Poldark fortune is built and the barrenness of the land they own, the sun glints off the sea and the fields looks luscious. It fits nicely into Ross' renewed determination to make his inheritance a success, not to mention ensuring that the production looks absolutely beautiful.

Of course, the show would be nothing without its Ross Poldark and Turner cuts a fine figure at the heart of the adaptation. It would have been easy to make Ross nothing but brooding looks and masculine posturing, but Turner also adds a quiet, emotional undercurrent to the character that remains restrained but visible. He also fires off a one liner or two with ease, particularly at the expense of his catty near-mother-in-law, which undercuts the tortured longing looks enough to bring some levity to the proceedings.

As for the rest of the ensemble, the cast are suitably strong in their respective roles, though most act more as satellites for Ross' return at this stage, rather than characters in their own right. Phil Davies nearly steals the show as he wraps himself up in a Cornish burr and engages in a good old fashioned fight before the episode's end. Heida Reed simpers very prettily as Elizabeth, but that amount of trembling can't possibly sustain a full character arc. Here's hoping she gets a little more to do as the series develops. Another standout is Jack Farthing as the scheming George Warleggan, clashing his bought and paid for elegance with the rugged Poldarks wonderfully, carrying on the well-worn tradition of the nicely speaking baddie with aplomb.

Horsfield's adaptation skilfully combines exposition and context for the ongoing storyline, but it is here that it feels like there is a spark lacking. With the sheer amount that this first episode needed to set up, it ensures that the story feels more like a primer for eventual events rather than anything particularly significant in its own right. Tensions of all kinds are set up with thwarted romances, financial burdens and socal climbing familial disputes all getting a look in, but it feels like place-setting rather than any particular advancement. If that was the intention, then the series now has a solid foundation from which to spring, hopefully ensuring that it all gets a little more like the comical brawl to end this episode's proceedings than the many exposition-heavy scenes of familial struggle.

If you've been following the blog for a while now, you all know I'm a sucker for a period drama so I'm immensely looking forward to seeing how Poldark unfolds. With everything set up now as Ross retakes his position in the county, it looks like it might be duelling pistols at dawn in next week's instalment. How exciting!

- Becky

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